Bored of the Rings

Now, look! I love The Lord of the Rings! OK? I mean, I am a fan... a true devotee…

I’ve written and broadcast about J R R Tolkien and his fictional realm of Middle-earth; I’ve grappled with a book which its author described as being “'very unsuitable for dramatic representation” in order to adapt it for the radio; and I have chronicled the process by which the book later became a movie trilogy.

So, I went to see The Lord of the Rings - The Musical with high hopes and a keen awareness of the gargantuan challenge facing those responsible for the production.

I came out not so much disappointed as dismayed that Tolkien’s epic has finally been reduced to a series of almost meaningless tableaux, which employ some of the most startling effects that money can buy and yet which conspire to leave the audience with a nothing more than a piece of theatrical artifice in which spectacle substitutes for character and dazzle for drama.

The cumulative effect is to render Tolkien’s heart-breakingly perilous quest as a trivial trip into territory which strays perilously close to the borders of Pantoland and, in so doing, tosses aside the moral weight, mythic purpose and emotional dynamism of the original story. until virtually all that is left is a bag of wizard tricks...

True, the interior of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane looks amazing with the proscenium arch overgrown with a woodland growth more tangled than Treebeard’s Fangorn; true, the much-written-about stage mechanics, that are almost constantly turning, rising and falling to create a changing landscape, are undeniably ingenious; true, a handfull of the set pieces - from Bilbo’s utterly magical disappearance to the fiery appearance of the Balrog - are pretty stunning. But, beyond these conjuror’s treats, there is little to engage the mind and nothing to seize the heart.

Three hours (with a short interval) is too long for a theatrical experience as vacuous as this and too short to do any kind of justice to Tolkien’s three-volume epic.

The costume designs are all too obviously inspired by those in the films (I wonder that Jackson and New Line Cinema aren’t pleading copyright infringement!) as are some of the plot devices in the first act, which only manages to take us to Gandalf’s fall in Khazad-dûm, five chapters shy of the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.

This leaves a vast amount of incident and character drama to be somehow crammed into the next two acts. It is a prodigious task and one that proves impossible.

Almost the entire content of The Two Towers and much of The Return of the King is junked and, with no time to deal with the problems facing the horse-folk of Rohan, it’s a whistle-stop visit to Minas Tirith for Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli (Lord Denethor has one speech and is never seen or heard of again) followed by a hurried excursion to the Black Gates.

Frodo, Sam and Gollum fare slightly better but as the evening wears on (and on) what’s left of the plot disintegrates under the sense of ever-accelerating panic as lines are rattled off and everyone hurtles blindly towards the final curtain.

It’s hard to say what’s the worst thing about this misbegotten project...

Maybe it is the irritating hobbits with their squeaky voices and absurd Mummerset accents; the bored and utterly charisma-less Gandalf; the stilt-walking Yorkshire Ents wearing pork-pie hats; or the Cirque du Soleil style elves who swing arouth Lothlórien on trapeze-vines and whose speeches are accompanied by risible hand gestures that look like boy scout semaphore signals.

Or perhaps it is the ghastly pre-show invasion of the auditorium by silly-ass hobbits throwing apples and chasing fireflies; or (where the second interval ought to have been) the equally tedious orc-attack on people who have paid far too much for their tickets to be jumped on by over-enthusiastic members of an ensemble, desperately trying to make up for not having any other real moments in which to demonstrate their ability to act.

Or it could simply the totally unmemorable songs that far from advancing the story or fleshing out the characters, stop everything dead in its tracks for what feels like an eternity.

Gollum is good but arrives far too late to do anything more than play out his famous schizoid debate with Sméagol in a style that is clearly intended to approximate - if not impersonate - the performance in the film by Andy Serkis.

As for the rest of the cast, only Elrond and Galadriel have any sense of authority and stature but, alas, they hopelessly outnumbered.

The greatest crime committed by the show is its total failure to make any of the characters live as real people: not as Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and Heroes but as flesh-and-blood individuals - like us - with the same fears, loves, hatreds, jealousies and sorrows as we all experience.

That is why people engage with Tolkien's characters; it is what we strove for in creating the radio series and it is what Jackson superbly achieved in his movie trilogy. Incredible though it seems, however, it is a concept that appears to have totally bypassed the creators of this production, and the price paid for this missed opportunity is high...

In the dying moments of the show, Gandalf tells Frodo that he is off to spend some time with his good friend Tom Bombadil - a joke, one assumes, at the expense of those earlier versions on radio and film that (to the chagrin of devout Tolkien fans) omitted those episodes from the book featuring Master Bombadil.

However, in a production that not only drops Old Tom but also cuts Celeborn, Théoden, Éowyn, Faramir, Wormtoungue and half a dozen other characters and which skips over such key events as the battles of Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields, it is a fatuous jibe.

In truth, if anyone in the audience hasn't read the books or seen the films, I doubt they'll have the faintest idea what's going on... But then some of the cast may not be entirely sure, either...

There may be a way of putting Tolkien’s story on stage but, if so, then this isn’t it.

Others, more generous than I, will say that it fails but is nevertheless a brave failure. But, whichever way you look at it, with a budget of £25 million, it’s likely to prove an expensive failure…